Westworld season 1's early episodes can be a little overwhelming for audiences. The show wastes very little time trying to ease its audience into its world; instead, you are dropped square in the middle of Westworld’s scenario - much as the park’s guests are thrust into a highly romanticized and entirely manufactured version of the Wild West. We are expected to make our own way and find our own answers.
This is part of what makes the show’s soundtrack so compelling. The first time that you hear a player piano churn out a slightly altered version of a familiar song, the effect is similar to passing someone you know on the street in a strange place: you’re fairly confident in what is happening, but also uncertain if you can trust your brain. Westworld's various covers were assembled by series composer Ramin Djawadi, who was also responsible for the opening credits theme and who previously wrote the theme music for another HBO titan, Game of Thrones.
Once you get past the shock of hearing these familiar songs in an unfamiliar way, you begin to realize that that curated music of Westworld is telling you more than the show’s script sometimes does. While this technique is not exclusive to Westworld, rarely has a show assigned its licensed soundtrack such a critical role. The songs of Westworld are not just bookends; they are storytellers. Here's a guide to every cover song used in season 1, and the significance of their use.
Black Hole Sun
The inclusion of Soundgarden’s 1994 hit initially seems like one of the most bizarre additions to the Westworld soundtrack. This psychedelic song of the summer can be heard in the very first episode, shortly after Westworld’s script writer is assured he’ll have “more rich a--holes to gratify tomorrow,” and during a brief tour of Maeve’s bar.
Within that context, the song begins to make more sense. Chris Cornell once said that "Black Hole Sun" is partially about how he worried the course of the world was going to create more disillusioned men willing to stab each other in the back to get away. Its use within the world of the show seems to be a subtle stab at the inherently selfish nature of the park's guests.
Paint it, Black
It almost feels as if its mandatory for every TV show and movie with a modern soundtrack to feature at least one Rolling Stones song. In case "Gimme Shelter" is somehow unavailable, you can do a lot worse than "Paint it, Black" - the Stones’ fast-paced anthem for the downtrodden.
Ramin Djawadi’s version of the song is a touch different. His reimagining takes cues from many of John William’s best compositions by turning the Stones’ classic into a gradually escalating tribute to the classic adventure genre. Westworld’s version of "Paint it, Black" brilliantly sets the mood for one of the series’ first action scenes by being a slightly traditional theme bolstered by just a hint of something more sinister simmering beneath the surface.
Ain't No Grave
Johnny Cash’s cover of this Claude Ely song is one of the few licensed songs in Westworld to not be remade into a tune befitting of the park's era. That’s no surprise given that the song was written not too far removed from the fall of the wild west and is performed by Johnny Cash in a manner that just screams soul.
While the western elements of Westworld are typically downplayed in favor of the shows sci-fi and morality aspects, "Ain’t No Grave" manages to pull double duty as both a celebration of the old west, and an appropriate commentary on the eternal lives of the park’s hosts.
The first Radiohead song to appear in Westworld is also one of the most thematically interesting uses of music in the entire series. The song itself is a classic, and Ramin Djawadi’s old-timey rendition of it is masterful, but the really fascinating aspect of this song is the context of it.
"No Surprises" is used to score two similar scenes featuring Maeve trying to seduce customers, andhe repetition of the music is meant to emphasize the repetition of the host reset process. In fact, the track itself may not necessarily have been chosen to be emblematic a certain theme, but rather because its popularity just helps to invoke a stronger sense of familiarity. The best reference to this song choice, however, is actually the episode’s title, Chestnut, which is a word used to describe a piece of music that is repeated so often is starts to get old.
Westworld’s piano version of this Cure classic isn’t one of the more instantly recognizable themes on the soundtrack. The slight alteration of the original tune featured here does an excellent job of ensuring that only the most finely tune ears will catch it, which is kind of a shame when you consider that it’s among the most relevant songs to the story of the show.
The semi-obscurity of the song plays well with Maeve’s growing independence as she realizes the nature of her situation. She's outside of the norm just as this song is. Incidentally, it makes sense within the context of the story that this tune was chosen at the will of a programmer who didn’t care if the guests recognized it. The central theme of being lost in "A Forest" also seems to comment on how Maeve no longer knows her place in the world.
Something I Can Never Have
The haunting string instrument cover of one of Nine Inch Nails’ greatest songs is another strange choice based solely on the nature of the song itself. In a world where anything a guest could possibly want is granted to them, who is it that is chasing something they can never have?
The answer seems to be “everyone.” The hosts that are starting to question their world are certainly chasing something they can’t seem to have, but for the guests that have gone a bit off the grid and come to the brothel where this song plays, they are pursuing a sense of satisfaction that even a world of seemingly infinite pleasures cannot readily provide.
Motion Picture Soundtrack
As Maeve, who it is becoming clear may have been the muse for the soundtrack, walks through the inner workings of Westworld and begins to understand what her world really is, we hear Radiohead’s "Motion Picture Soundtrack" blare longingly in the background.
The moment is devastating, but it’s the music that guarantees you will walk away emotionally drained. Even though this instrumental version leaves out such lyrics as “Red wine and sleeping pills; Help me get back to your arms,” the impact of their sentiment is still very much felt in this moment of loss and doubt. This scene also marks an important turning point in Maeve's character arc, as she awakens from her comforting everyday routine to the nightmare of reality.
Fake Plastic Trees
With the exception of "Paranoid Android," which we can all admit is a bit too on the nose in the context of this show, there are few Radiohead songs that fit Westworld better than "Fake Plastic Trees."
The relationship is fairly obvious even from the song’s title, but a quick glance at the track's lyrics showcase its unbelievable appropriateness. “She looks like the real thing; She tastes like the real thing; My fake plastic love” could be the scribbled notation that the show’s writers made when coming up with the blueprint of Maeve. Watching her slowly wake up to the true nature of things as this song echoes dutifully throughout the saloon is haunting.
Back to Black
“We only said goodbye with words, I died a hundred times,” croons Amy Winehouse as she looks back on the breakup that sent her down that old familiar path to self-abuse. "Back to Black" is a tale of sorrow, anger, and regret. Yet, it’s also one about giving in to losing control.
Such is the situation that Maeve is in after she wakes up with her newfound powers to rewrite the park’s story as she sees fit. Her morning stroll is accompanied by a player piano take on this modern classic that is all about one party returning to something familiar, while another walks down a dangerous road of their own design.
House of the Rising Sun
A prostitute propositions a man with a thinly-veiled double entendre while other clients slam down whiskey in between puffs of their gaudy cigars. It’s an average day in then brothel for everyone except for Maeve. As she looks upon her den of sin, she begins to showcase regret over the life she has lived thus far.
It’s the same regret spoken of in the lyrics of "House of The Rising Sun." Had Maeve been able to listen to the songs’ words, perhaps she would have been able to understand there is a fall that comes from living your life in sin and misery. Instead, a robotic piano plays a wordless version of the song throughout her brothel.
Exit Music (For a Film)
The final piece of music repurposed for Westworld is yet another Radiohead track. Actually, it’s one we’ve heard in another popular sci-fi show this year, as "Exit Music For a Film" was also used in Black Mirror. The scenario for each song is similar. At a moment of hope that only comes after a tumultuous journey, a shocking revelation turns everything on its head.
Ramin Djawadi has said that he sees the use of this song as a message that the hosts are in control of the park now right down to the selection of music. It certainly does seem like the perfect choice in that context. While the park’s inventors may have chosen it as a somewhat boastful declaration of their finale, it are the hosts that recognize the true darkness of its meaning and why their creator's final bow is premature.
Westworld season 1's soundtrack is available now.